UK’s farming industry could be ‘ ‘ without seasonal agricultural workers scheme

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  1. Despite repeated warnings from farmers, UK government yet to implement a new labor plan
  2. Over 98 percent of the UK’s seasonal workforce are from the EU
  3. 'A [berry] punnet that costs £2 today to be £3 post-Brexit' unless a solution is found
  4. Near-full employment means UK workers can't fill seasonal jobs

The former Chairman of British Summer Fruits (BSA) – an organisation representing 97 percent of the UK berry industry – said “we need The Home Office to understand that we must have a scheme in place by the very latest September 2018 in order for us to recruit for the 2019 season. Without it, an incredibly successful soft fruit industry, which contributes millions of pounds to the UK economy, will be crushed.” – http://www.seasonalberries.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/How-Brexit-Could-Crush-The-Soft-Fruit-Industry1.pdf

There is still no seasonal agricultural scheme in place, and the new Chairman of BSA, Nick Marston, says the UK government haven’t given positive signs of introducing one.

The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) was the UK’s longest running migration scheme, and allowed European migrants to fill seasonal agricultural jobs, until it ended in 2013 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-24064774).  This was despite warnings from the National Farmers Union (NFU), the British Growers Association and a report by the government’s own Migration Advisory Committee, that ending the scheme would lead to a labour shortage several years later. Then the UK vote for Brexit happened, and UK farmers’ future has been left more uncertain.

British horticulture alone (fruits, vegetables, flowers) relies on EU workers for more than 98 per cent of its 80,000 seasonal workforce, according to the Financial Times (https://www.ft.com/content/7ceb876c-b58d-11e6-961e-a1acd97f622d) and around 69 percent of staff working on UK meat plant floors are from the EU27 countries, according to the BMPA’s Response to the UK’s Migration Advisory Committee Consultation on EEA Workers in British Industry.

And before the UK has even left the European Union, (The UK has formally declared it’s leaving the EU but it will not do so until March 2019 – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-39431428) the NFU’s labour providers survey reports there was an average 11 percent shortfall in seasonal workers for horticultural production in 2017. It also revealed that in September the number of workers returning to work on farms, fell to 16 percent. This is in comparison to January, when 65 percent of workers were returning. https://www.nfuonline.com/news/latest-news/worker-shortages-could-cause-supply-chain-disruption-in-2018-nfu-warns/  

The chairman of the NFU Horticultural Board, Ali Capper, says “Prior to the referendum, we were a very attractive place to come for seasonal work”. However, this drop in the number of EU workers coming to the UK has been caused by the decline in the UK currency, since the UK voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum, workers no longer feeling valued and improving economies in the rest of Europe, with Germany introducing its first minimum wage in 2014 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-28140594), she says.  

A BSA report says the UK’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee was told Romanian workers are increasingly turning down UK work offers because they say they no longer feel welcome and the level of hate crimes reported in the UK July 2016, one month after the EU referendum, was 41 percent higher than in July 2015. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-37640982)

Capper says “Because of my role with the NFU, I made a mistake of allowing one of my long standing members of staff from Poland to be interviewed by a couple of the national media. And he had some very unpleasant phone calls afterwards.”

On her own farm, where she has a team of 20 Polish workers wanting to return next year, she says political uncertainty means she can’t even guarantee whether they will be able to. Capper says growers are already disinvesting in the UK and “if we haven’t got the workers to pick the fruit and veg, we will see fruit and vegetables rotting in the fields.”

Marston says “There is already a significant shortage of staff [in the soft fruits industry] and the concern is that will be worse next year.”

Why should the UK consumer care about a lack of EU workers?

Well, because their food will have lower standards and a higher cost.

Marston says if there is a shortage of labour, the prospect of berry prices increasing is “absolutely inevitable.” “A punnet that costs £2 today will be £3 post-Brexit, if there is no scheme in place.” Other European countries already have permit schemes to allow people to come from outside the EU, on top of access to European labour, which the UK may no longer have in the future.

These price hikes wouldn’t be limited to fruit and vegetable produce either. Over 30 percent of all workers in the manufacture of food products, including processing cheese and meat, making baked goods and animal slaughter are EU migrant labourers, according to The Conversation. (https://theconversation.com/how-reliant-is-britain-on-eu-migrant-workers-62796)

Chief Executive of the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA), Nick Allen says if there’s a lack of EU labour “Demand will drop, so the farm gate price will drop, so more farmers will go out of business.” He says if this happens retailers will just import from somewhere else and “meat has the highest WTO tariffs of anything, so the cost of any imported meat will go up dramatically.”

If no deal is struck with the European Union, meat imported and exported between the EU and UK would be done so on World Trading Organisation rules, meaning huge tariffs both ways – 50 percent plus. Allen says “What’s the government gonna do? See food go short and go expensive, or just quietly turn a blind eye to meat coming in with a lower standard, really? It would be a shame because essentially we’d be exporting our welfare concerns, sort of shutting our eyes to it really … An animal is an animal, it shouldn’t matter where in the world it is. It should still be treated to a high welfare standard.”

Even under a free trade arrangement with the EU, (as well as a WTO scenario), UK food prices would rise, according to the NFU’s 2016 report. https://www.nfuonline.com/assets/61142.

What about new free trade deal (FTA) opportunities?  About 80 percent of the UK’s agricultural exports go to the EU, according to a UK government report (https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/lords-select/eu-energy-environment-subcommittee/news-parliament-2015/brexit-agr-rpt/) and of UK trade “94 percent of imports and 97 percent of exports are with countries with which the EU has negotiated an FTA.” (https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201617/ldselect/ldeucom/169/16906.htm)

On top of this, Capper says “If we have to replace the produce that is produced here in the UK with imports, it will be less fresh, which means it will be less good for you because the nutritional value drops as the produce ages.”

Why not fill the jobs with British people?

 

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